The great promise of the Napster generation and all of those internet dwellers that followed was that with all the history of recorded music at your fingertips, nothing was off-limits. Punk goes pop. Metalheads can finally get into Metalheadz. You could download a transcode of “Teenage Dirtbag” reasonably convinced it was by Weezer. Several generations of “post-internet” (blech, at that designation) have attempted to live up to that potential. But that openness to new sounds and forms has never been more fully realized in the current mutations of rap, and yes, the versions of it that tend to live solely on on Soundcloud.
People like Lil Peep and his Gothboiclique pals have fully slashed down the curtains hanging between emo and rap. Lil Pump and Smokepurrp and a whole crew of similarly minded kids have brought a bit of lo-fi noise’s rough edges to blistered trap beats. But there’s experimenters even further out there than those who’ve gained mainstream acclaim, people like the malleable Richmond crew Prison Religion, whose acid-drenched tracks draw on the history of industrial music, metal iconography, and experimental club music (also to my ears I kinda hear, like, skramz, but maybe don’t tell them that). And then there’s people like Lil West, a 19-year-old from Delaware, who defies easy categorization, sometimes sounding a little bit like all of the above, and sometimes like nothing else at all.
Over the last couple years, he’s developed an outsider-y approach to these in-vogue sounds heavy on vocal modulation and off-kilter melodies. His catalog’s full of curios like “WYM,” which appends a 21 Savage feature to a hook Auto-Tuned such that it’s barely tonal. His biggest mainstream look came on the New York Times-beloved emo-rapper nothing, nowhere.’s “rem,” on which he does some distant swooning over a palm-muted guitar line otherwise befitting a Dashboard Confessional song. At this exact moment, his most recent SoundCloud upload is a droning "cover" of the metalcore quintet Killswitch Engage.
Lil West comes to all of this with an out-there perspective on the possibilities that hip-hop and its hybrids can offer. He explored that in depth on his September 2017 mixtape LW17, a wonderfully varied collection of post-genre experiments and that occasionally coalesce into moments of true brilliance. But far and away its most absurdly engaging moment is “Gum in My Hair,” a track that I have been unable to fully wrap my head around in the week since I first encountered it. A moment-by-moment accounting probably does it the most justice.
The track begins with a hook from the singer Osno1—who also produced the track—involving the foreboding line “am I driving a hearse or a gurney,” only her voice is comically pitched up, rendering its mortal meditations kinda silly—like a tombstone made out of cotton candy. Its melodies are a little bit early aughts emo as played by the pranksters in PC Music—a few of my friends have pointed out that such a description basically just sounds like recent Fall Out Boy material but I tend to view it more charitably. And then Lil West himself appears, sing-rapping sweet-nothings in double time over kick drum programming that’s almost as hyperactive as a Teklife production, before ceding back to the busted-up guitar riff at the song’s backbone. He pines for a past lovers and the two production-styles slowly meld together, sulphuric 808s lending a doomy melancholy to the riffs—and then a final saccharine hook it descends into digitalist moaning and black metal tremolo picking, like something from that Liturgy album that everyone hated except me. It all makes no sense. It makes perfect sense.
Part of the novelty of “Gum in My Hair” is just how much it tries to do. So many of these hybrids try to just mash-up a couple different genres or feelings, but Osno1 and Lil West go for all of them, tossing a little bit of music’s most emotional forms into the whirring blender of rap in the Sounclound era. Even with how much experimenting happens with the freedom that these platforms offer, it feels so rare to hear something like this, something so genuinely new. It’s both beholden to its creators obvious unabashed influences and totally unhinged in the incredibly over-the-top way it executes them. Every time I replay it, it still feels like an alchemical miracle—unlikely ingredients all firing in unison to create pure bubblegum. In a way, it was all there in the title, a sticky, sweet, maddening, dangerous accident that you won’t escape anytime soon. Listen here. Now.
Colin Joyce is an editor for Noisey and is on Twitter.